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My Life as an "Indie Artist"

People ask me what my life is like as an "indie artist". If they kind of know what I do, they sometimes ask me how I do so much of it, how I manage not to get disheartened, how I keep writing, having new ideas, or whatever.

Gajiru "Gajeel" mohecan lazy cat indie artist
Yeah. It all just makes itself.

If they have no idea about my activities, knowing that I only really leave the house about once a month to go and buy in food supplies, they ask me “What do you do all day?”

If they get surprised by something I say in passing (such as, “Oh, I’m working on my 8th album release. It's called "Let There Be Light" and I'm working on the album cover now so I can deliver it to the aggregator. I'm also slowly putting more stuff in my shop… I have about 900 more items to go and then it’ll all be in there.”), they might ignore it as so much incomprehensible nonsense, or it might dawn on them what I mean, and then they ask me “How do you find the time to do so much?” But it’s usually in that tone that makes you feel like they think you’re lying, and actually you’re just chilling on the couch doing nothing at all. After all…. you’re taking time to talk to them, aren’t you? You never seem busy... And it's not like they're going to actually go and see everything you've been doing. That's a lot of work for them, after all, and they have lives of their own....

So, in the minds of people who know me, on the one hand, I’m a do-nothing layabout who rarely dresses. On the other hand, I’m a demon-genius of endless production, but no one can figure out how that happens, because whenever anyone drops by or contacts me, I make time to at least talk to them and find out what they need, maybe talk them through some crisis or just shoot the shit and catch up.

It’s actually kind of interesting how people assume that you have literally nothing else you’re doing if you stop and make time for them, just because. They assume that if you're talking to them without wanting to get something out of them, free of ulterior motives (if they even believe such people exist anymore), you must be some kind of mentally-deficient idiot with absolutely nothing else going on in your life at all. And it's pretty sad that they think that way, if you think about it.

Incidentally, I've been releasing albums for about a year and a half now. And designing clothing and other stuff for about 6 months, I think, more or less. It's still very early days for both those things, and I’m pretty sure *most* of my friends and acquaintances still have no idea what I actually do. Most of them haven’t heard any of the songs, haven’t realised they’re my own, and don’t know that these weird albums and designs and clothing items I keep posting up in my personal newsfeeds are all mine. They haven't got the time to realise it, and there’s maybe some mental block that just doesn’t want to know. And you know, I’ll share this stuff to them because, after all, these are people I actually know or have some connection to in my "real life", but I don’t push it. I don't beg my acquaintances to start buying stuff or listening to stuff they have no real ear for or aesthetic attraction to, and that's actually a failing on my part in this day and age. That’s an outdated style of personal integrity I just can’t bring myself to break through. The idea of “networking” still reeks of Amway and other assorted pyramid scams (oops, sorry… “MLM solutions”) to me. I’m old-fashioned like that. I also understand that what I do is a full-on onslaught of, well, me. And I accept that that's a pretty weird pill to swallow, even in pretty small doses.

enthusiastic girl Beijing Opera makeup creepy cyborg look
It is helpful, but disappointing to accept that the driving passions in your life as an independent artist may come across as strange, offputting or of no interest to close friends and family.

Occasionally, friends will catch on for a moment (fleeting and brief), say the stuff I've shared is amazing, and maybe ask how rich it’s making me. There's no doubt there is money to be made in the music, fashion and fine arts industries. But if you're an independent go-it-alone artist who's just starting out, that money has to pass quite a few barriers before it seeps out in your general direction. But people don't know that. They think if you're creating and promoting stuff (never mind that they've seen it because they know you personally), you must be making bank. As a result of this widespread misconception, I’ve sold 2 shirts to people I know personally. Actually, both shirts were to my ex-husband. At cost. Because he was really enthusiastic. Genuinely so. He's accustomed to pretty big doses of... hehe well.... the kind of weirdness that springs out of me.

So, for the record, and because this is leading up to something, an actual point with context like super-old-book-readin'-folk style illustrative writing, I'm going to tell you about my day. About what it's actually like living as an "indie artist".

On a typical day, I get up in the morning at around 6:30 or 7, have coffee, play with my dog, eat some breakfast with my partner and talk about stuff, plan what stuff we need to do and generally just enjoy waking up together. If I'm lucky, I go and have a poop. Then I'll come back and have a look at social media and maybe some news as I wake up, take note of things that I dreamed, or which presented themselves to me which I find interesting and intriguing, and maybe make some notes (or write down some song titles, lyrics snatches or vague notational ideas and explorations worth exploring that have got sparked in me overnight or as I perform these ordinary little morning rituals). If I'm in the middle of working on a song, I'll listen a couple of times to what I've already done while I'm still half-asleep, so it can filter down into my subconscious mind a little differently than normal, and see what that does for the next steps. Then I'll action any emails or communications that I think need immediate action (ok, ok…that means deleting them, most of the time), and then I settle into my own work for the day by around 8am. Today, for instance, this involved practicing (and recording) Parsi pronunciation in order to mangle them, William Shatner style, for some lines from Rumi for a Star Trek kind of Sufi song, called "The Final Frontier" to round out this 8th album, which looks at human religion, and the psychology engendered by different forms of belief systems. Tomorrow it will involve laying down the structure of a song about how, under the auspices of freedom and opportunity, the "Capitalist machine" grinds the hopeful and struggling masses into dust to feed the profits in the Temple of the Low... from the machine's point of view, because after all.... it's way more fun that way. And that's for the 9th album, which has yet to reveal to me its main theme in all its effulgent fulness. At some point tomorrow, I will begin painting the album cover for "Let There Be Light", and listen to the tracks carefully to arrange them in their correct order (even though many people never do listen to albums as complete entities anymore).

I work from home, so generally when I switch tasks (songwriting to design or painting, say), I take a little break and do some work in the house or outside — an hour cleaning, tidying, organising inside or outside, just to move around a bit and keep our living space a little better than, well, a complete tip. I spend about half an hour chatting to a friend most mornings while editing photos in the background after a couple of hours of music. Then, once that person goes off to start their day, I settle into whatever work I’m doing at the time in earnest. It’s usually a combination of composition, recording, mixing, and (when my ears get tired during mixing) design or photo prep for the shop. If I’m bringing out a new release, this will include visuals for each of the songs, and designing an album cover, which I’ll either design 100% in the computer, or which I’ll paint, scan in and then digitally manipulate to include the text and maybe some nifty special effects. The song visuals aren't strictly necessary, but they're something I can share, maybe put onto some posters, and they also help to give me a feel of what this work I've completed looks like as a whole, as a thing-in-itself. They're a lot of fun to create, besides, and they help me to relax a little while thinking out the themes of my next album, and to hone my digital design skills.

Adi Mudra To The Puss song lyrics sheet album art promotional design
Graphic design elements are a fun way to promote your work and hone your photo manipulation and editing skills. They are especially valuable if they pack a visual punch and intrigue those who come upon them. They can be multi-purposed.

During new release times (rarely other times, unfortunately, until I get all this shop stuff sorted out slowly) if I have the energy, I’ll seek out CC0 (public domain) video elements to weave into a strange video or two, and create different effects to overlay these. It’s pretty time-consuming, and since right now my Youtube channel has pretty much nobody looking at it, I don’t do it as often as I’d like to because I have to divide my time with everything else. That's also (incidentally) why these blog posts are few and far between. Marketing strategy tells us that Google picks up websites that change regularly and frequently, and a good way to get your page up into better rankings is to write a regular blog with real content, then people will come across you more easily, even when they're searching for something else. Well... that's if you actually make the time to do it.

I try to do some write-ups each day for the streetwear and arty products I design too, but it’s quite tiring compared to everything else, so that’s a slow and steady trickle of probably my second-least favourite part of my work. Actually, the shop stuff feels kind of endless, and I’m cutting back and putting in only those designs I like best now, because I still have to bring out fresh stuff at least 4 times a year. I’m slowly getting the hang of it, but I'm not sure releasing "seasonal collections" is the best way, since there's always more going in in dribs and drabs as I get already-created stuff written up and into the shop, and as I make more stuff even while knowing that I probably shouldn't add to that particular work pile. I can't help it though. It's fun to make the stuff.

Once I write up a description, prep all the photos, upload them, tag them to optimise them for search result hits in Google, add all the special inventory codes for variations (colours and sizes), I can add an item to the shop. Once it’s in the shop, and before I forget, I upload links to it in my Pinterest account. If it’s part of a seasonal collection, I’ll also try to upload it along with some other things to generate interest on my Facebook page, Instagram and (hahaha I don't even know why anymore...) Tumblr.

Regardless of what I’m doing, I find a good stopping-point at around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and I cook our main meal of the day; we generally eat by around 3 or 4. After that, I work some more until I have a break around 9pm to spend some cuddle time with my partner. We watch anime, maybe (occasionally) a crappy live-action movie. After that, call it 10:30, I’ll chat to a friend online, do more graphic design work or composing and organise my music work to a good starting point for the next day. I’m usually finished by about 11:30 or midnight, although if I’ve had some strange inspirations, this might go on with some last-minute obsessive music creation until 1:30 or 2 in the morning, at which point my partner tells me it’s bedtime, and means it. I end the day by listening to whatever music I've been working on, and make a mental note of what I can hear (but isn't there yet) that I need to begin with when I wake up.

So, on a normal day, not counting the time spent cooking or cleaning or relaxing with my partner, I probably devote about 11-12 hours to this work. “Creating content” as they call it these days. Probably about three-quarters of that will be composing, recording and mixing on a good day. On a not-so-good day, I do all shop work. Then I feel a bit drained and depressed because I found no time to make music, but I generally feel pretty satisfied if I've managed to put a good dent in the backlog. For my own happy disposition and to retain a clear vision of what drives me, I try to make music every day for at very, very least a couple of hours. It keeps me going. And it’s kind of the point of it all. The fashion is fun, and possibly a little more accessible than the music (which I know is challenging. That’s kind of my musical mission. To stamp the experience of this particular incarnation into musical form). I do all of this 7 days a week.

Because I’ve always been profoundly disappointed in “band merch”, I decided to start designing stuff that I like personally, to "grow the visibility" of my musical activities. The shop, the designs, the clothing and arty stuff have all grown out of that. I like the idea that you can see a shirt you really like and know nothing about the music, because that shirt is nice and useful and durable and makes your life that much brighter. I also like the idea that maybe you happen upon the music and get enthusiastic, and see what kind of stuff there is in the shop, and instead of the usual boring, aesthetically disappointing, shoddily made and overpriced stuff you’ve been trained into expecting, there’s all this stuff that’s actually really cool — proper, well-made stuff you want to wear in its own right.

photo composite distinctive clothing branding style band merch
This is "band merch".

So… music and “merch”, it’s a common enough combination, but I think the idea that both sides can be stand-alone is something a little different. It means I spend a lot of time on the clothing side of things, and while this is personally a little challenging, I’m also kind of a demon with songwriting, so right now, apart from the frustration of having to spend a lot of time *not* writing music for 12 hours a day as I’d like to do, it’s not a major problem. I enjoy designing stuff and making art. The fact that it links up with what I’m doing musically is fun for me, even if it doesn’t matter in practice for people interested just in wearing the clothes or just listening to the music.

I mentioned that product write-ups are my second least favourite part of all this. It’s not that I don’t like doing them — I try to make them fun and different, something that, if someone should happen upon it, makes them laugh or think or have some kind of a reaction beyond the normal, slightly bored yearning to buy stuff, or wearily looking at stuff to buy. Maybe that’s counter-productive in our times. Maybe I’d do better to just say “Here, buy this before it’s gone and you miss out” instead of engaging people on other levels while they read about some strange t-shirt or bag or something. But, whether I like it or not, and whether it would be easier to just flog stuff as blandly as everyone else seems to do, I don’t do that. I make little stories, paint pictures, create odd jokes, and craft my write-ups as though they have the potential to give someone something when they come across them, whether they actually buy anything in the end or not. In this way, it’s *exactly* like the music. I think maybe some people think it's actually a strange and elaborate joke, that the stuff isn't real. Possibly in consequence of this, I don’t sell very many things... yet.

Lizard overlords model the latest hot streetwear fashion t-shirt designs from The Lowest of Low
While memorable imagery can help people to remember and seek out your stuff, if it's too odd, they might just think it's all a joke. Some jokes are worth it though.

Doing well-thought-out and engaging product descriptions is certainly not worth the effort in terms of person-hours, or in terms of time spent doing something other than music. But… it’s what it is, and I do actually believe in the products I design. Maybe they’ll take off one day. Who knows?

But … and this is where I’m (finally!) going with all this: there’s something worse than product write-ups. Actually, it’s kind of an adjunct to product write-ups. And it’s marketing.

Marketing is exhausting. Mostly because every one of us is marketed to every waking hour that we spend in anything close to “civilisation”. We have defences we’re not even aware of at this point. It takes a person an average of 3-5 times seeing the same thing (be it a product, an album cover, a brand logo) before they even *recognise* that they’ve seen it before. It's why having a recognisable logo, consistent backgrounds, colour schemes, etc., are helpful.

They have to see it loads more times, and over a period of time, repeatedly, before it’s something they’ll click on or spend energy investigating for themselves. And when they’re at that point, you’d better make damned sure you put that link right in front of them before they forget or get distracted or decide it’s too much energy for them to go and click.

Marketing: Sapping the Life Out of Indie Artists Everywhere

marketing poster for festival, party, fun eyeglasses. But people probably think it's a joke poster.
Marketing is all about getting memorable visuals in front of the right eyeballs in an over-saturated market. It needs to be aesthetically appealing to a target audience. And maybe not look so much like a joke.

So, if I were doing this whole thing right, I’d be creating heaps of content (posts) for social media every day. Posting at 4-hour intervals to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, maybe dead ol’ Tumblr, and who knows where else. If you notice, Facebook and Pinterest have options to release your posts according to a specified timetable... this is why. If I was a little more into that side of things, I would prepare a bunch of stuff and release it on a regular timer. Eh, it's maybe something to think about sometime.... As it is, I don’t have the time or the energy for that. So when I do post things (maybe once every few days, every week, every couple of weeks), it’s basically like throwing it all down a black hole of forgetfulness. If I do it too much, it depresses me, and negatively affects my ability to do the things I love: making music, creating weird posters, art and clothing. Having to actually flog it to people to earn my bread....

Well, there’s the trap, in a nutshell.

“Other people do it, though….” I hear you saying. But how well do they succeed with it? And here’s the crux of why I’ve written this today (apart from the fact that it’s content to remind you that I’m here and working at stuff you can easily miss or ignore, like my 8th album "Let There Be Light"): I don’t think they do succeed at it nearly as much as you're led to believe. I mean, some of them do, I'm sure, but if it were easy, would there really be an entire huge industry that has sprung up to "help"?

As you probably know if you're doing anything remotely in this vein yourself, it’s not enough to make an album and release it into the streaming sphere and just hope that people find it there. No one takes any notice, no one even necessarily comes across it, and if they do, they may or may not remember to add it to their liked artists, or to a playlist, or (imagine this!) share it to their friends. It’s just something they happen to be consuming at the time if it does happen to get served up to them. In fact, even if it gets stuck in their heads and they have the time and energy and are willing to expend the effort and take the initiative, they might have a hard time finding it again. Web's still a big place, you know... for now.

So whether it’s music or art or merchandise of any kind, you discover that you have to keep reminding them, over and over until they’re sick of seeing it, that your stuff exists. And that’s assuming you’re even getting it before the market-weary eyeballs of people who will be into it in the first place. It’s also assuming that you’re doing something 100% original, not something that piggybacks off something already-existing and popular (and probably subject to copyright violations if you get successful with it), which is a lot easier.

If you do all this reminding and timed posting the way they say you need to (especially if you’re starting from scratch, with no contacts in your ”industry” at all), it can not only take up a lot of your time, it can also turn people off while simultaneously wearing you the hell out. And more than that, it can also make you feel like a real, aggressive, greedy dick. This activity -- promotion, marketing -- compels you to acknowledge that no matter what kind of high and important art you are creating and sending like gentle kisses into the little world, your sister, what's being received is Product. You're creating consumer products for people to distract themselves in these (Wonderful! Progressive! Scientifically proven! Act Now!!) dreary times. But that’s not even the depressing part!

Here’s where it gets depressing:

This sad state of over-saturated-marketed-to demoralised modern life has given rise to a huge host of “services” for people who are still trying to get original, new stuff in front of the right audiences.

“Great, so use them!” I hear you lisp glibly, with a slightly threatened tone of superiority in your voice.